It’s a valid question. There’s no doubt that, with the help of social media, some people boast and lie, spread rumors and behave like bullies online. People can behave badly in any setting. For parents, the question is how to raise children who will be a force for good, both on and offline.
Empathy is a good place to start. Being able to imagine things from another ‘s perspective makes it easier to get along with each other, which, has lifelong advantages. “The ability to empathize affects our kid’s future health, wealth, authentic happiness, relationship satisfaction and ability to bounce back from adversity,” writes Dr. Michele Borba in her book Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World. “Empathy is also a positive predictor of children’s reading and math scores and critical thinking skills, prepares kids for the global world and gives them a job market boost.”
Some people worry that online interactions have an adverse effect on empathy because people don’t see the consequences of what they say. Research, however, suggests that things aren’t quite that simple. One study at the University of North Florida found that, under some circumstances, social media may actually “facilitate empathy” because it gives people a glimpse into perspectives other than their own.
Here are a few ways families can engage with online communities actively encouraging positive social values:
Play. Common Sense Media has compiled a list of simulations that are suited to a variety of ages. Each game immerses children in a situation that stimulates thinking about how things might seem to some with different experiences. (http://bit.ly/2hE6gOC)
Create. Rock Your World encourages middle and high school students to identify, research and publicize issues that matter to them. The website includes lessons that lead students through the process of developing and sharing films, songs and written materials. (creativevisions.org/rock-your-world/)
Learn. Ashoka is a learning community built on the premise that children will “thrive in a world of rapid change” only if they master “essential skills of empathy, teamwork, leadership, and changemaking.” Parents will find a wide variety of resources, including a bulletin board with thoughtful articles and videos about how to nurture empathy. (startempathy.org)
Stand Up. Be Fearless Be Kind is a multifaceted project underwritten by the toy company Hasbro. The website offers a variety of projects and programs that encourage compassion, empathy and the courage to stand up for other people. (befearlessbekind.hasbro.com)
Act. Doing Good Together is a national nonprofit dedicated to helping families form habits of kindness. Its site features stories about big-hearted kids who have accomplished exceptional things in their communities. (doinggoodtogether.org)
Connect. Xocial is an alternative social network that invites members to raise their XO score by taking actions that create better communities. One campaign called Families for Good offered “social impact” points for everything from thanking a police officer or working at the local food bank to teaching a game to someone or performing a “secret act of nice.” (xocial.com)
These are just a few of many efforts to use online resources to cultivate empathy. The best way to teach empathy will always be modeling it at home. Be sure to spend a little no-tech time every day talking about what’s happening to your child and how he or she feels about it. Help your children understand how they can stand up for or express what’s important to them without insulting or demeaning other people. Kids who know the benefits of empathy because they’ve experienced them at home are in a much better position to fend off malicious influences online.
Even more important, they are likely to gravitate to communities that will support them in finding the kind of happiness that is rooted in understanding, compassion and generosity.